Environmentalists, Lawyers, And Fishermen Go After BP

Members of Elastec/American Marine Inc. inspect a fire boom containing collected oil prior to conducting a controlled burn in the Gulf of Mexico, May 5, 2010. US Navy Photo

Even though a 4-story, 100-ton metal box, also known as a “Coffer Dam,” has been placed on a gushing wellhead of crude deep in the Gulf of Mexico, the disaster here is far from over.

Countless gallons of crude has covered over 2000 miles of water and there is no guarantee that the Coffer Dam will stop the leak 100 percent, which means that more crude will spill into Gulf.

Environmentalists are worried that the damage could be irreversible, saying that the shrimp and fishery industry that people in Louisiana and lower Mississippi have depended on for generations may be coming to an end.

The Chemicals

According to Paul Orr of the Mississippi River Keepers, an environmental organization in Baton Rouge, the chemical dispersant that the agencies involved have agreed to use are toxic to humans and will likely kill life on the seafloor.

According to the Deepwater Horizon Response Unified Command Center, some 282,000 gallons of COREXIT have been sprayed on the oil slick since April 20. The chemical acts as a detergent, breaking up the oil into particles that then sink to the ocean floor.

“People think that the dispersant make the oil go away, but it doesn’t,” said Orr. “The oil is still there, just at the bottom.”

Orr has accused the agencies involved in the clean up, including BP, of downplaying the dangers of the chemical. Meanwhile, BP argues that fish will likely eat the oil as it always had. “They feed on the oil, it’s food for them,” a BP executive told WWL 870 AM on Friday.

The difference this time, however, is that the oil is now contaminated with a chemical that is toxic, environmentalists argue. “I think right now is all about responding to the spill, I don’t know how much environmental monitoring they are doing as far taking water samples for toxicity,” Orr said.

The chemical dispersant can harm animal and human life alike, but also the fumes from the crude itself — hydrocarbons and benzine — can make people sick.

Marjorie Orr (Paul Orr’s mother) of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network is concerned that BP may not be doing enough to protect the fishermen who have been hired to help with the clean up. She says that fishermen that worked cleaning the spill of the Exxon Valdez have contacted her.

“Their health has been seriously harmed — it’s still seriously harmed because they didn’t have any protective gear. They wanted to help to save their precious area there, but now they are paying the price and they didn’t want that to happen to the fishermen here. They wanted them to know, not to make the same mistake,” M. Orr said.

The Future Of An Industry

Eric Gree, or “Peanut” as his fishermen friends call him, is a fourth generation fisherman and shrimper. He build a new boat after Katrina destroyed the one he had five years ago. Gree says that he was looking forward to having a good year, but then the spill happened.

“They said that they was going to give us jobs. BP was going to hire us,” Gree explained.

Gree, along with hundreds of other fishermen sat for six hours in a packed school gymnasium two weeks ago to receive hazmat training from BP. He says that BP didn’t provide the fishermen any food or water during the class, but that he stayed long enough to get his certificate. Now, he, like many, is waiting to get called by BP to help in the clean up efforts.

Gree says that he is so desperate for work that he is willing to take the chance of being exposed to the dispersant and the hydrocarbons, but that he is even more concerned for the future of the fishery industry.

“That stuff kills our shrimp,” Gree said. “What are we going to do in years to come? That’s what the problem is.”

The Lawsuits

BP faces over 200 class action lawsuits from people seeking damages from the spill. The Attorney General of Louisiana, James D. “Buddy” Caldwell, has also met with BP executives. Caldwell says that BP has admitted total responsibility for the Deepwater oil rig explosion, which led to the spill. “We just need them to put things in writing,” Caldwell said.

Lawyers had an important role from the very beginning. BP had issued 17-page long agreements to fishermen who wanted to work in the oil spill clean up. According to M. Orr, BP wanted to have the fishermen “sign away their rights.”

“It said that fishermen would have to have their own [health] insurance and not BP’s. They also couldn’t tell anyone what they saw. And, it took away their rights to sue BP if they got sick from the chemicals,” M. Orr explained.

Some of the fishermen got lawyers to explain the agreement to them, but it was after a week when hundreds had already signed the contract. The lawyers moved quickly to get a judge to stop BP from getting fishermen to sign the agreements. The judge ordered BP to destroy the agreements.

“It was a hard agreement to understand,” M. Orr said. “I got a copy of it and even I had trouble reading it. Thank God we had a lawyer to make sense out of it for us.”

The Investigation

A public hearing will be held next Tuesday in New Orleans for the joint Mineral Management Service (MMS) and the US Coast Guards investigation into the circumstances surrounding the explosion, fire, pollution, and sinking of the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit Deepwater Horizon, with multiple losses of life in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010.

BP has been working very closely with government agencies in controlling the spill. Coast Guard Chief, Admiral Thad Allen, who was appointed to lead the oil spill control efforts told WWL 870 AM that BP has been “cooperating” with everything they’ve been told to do. But some remain skeptic that BP will follow through with paying for the damage the oil has cost.

“BP is going to tie this in court for years,” a conservative AM talk radio host said to his listeners over the airwaves on Wednesday. “It’s going to be like what happened with the Exxon Valdez. The judges will give them a break; the lawyers will keep the money and the fishermen will get nothing.”

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